Tuesday 9 March 2021

The Winner


Alison Allen

a pint of bitter

Kyle was waiting at the gate when the old man emerged from the barn.      

      ‘Slinking off without a word?’ His voice was wintry. ‘Just like your father. Time you woke up and learned the meaning of hard graft.’ His eye fell on Kyle’s guitar, propped up against the gate. ‘Music, eh?’ He spat into the mud. ‘You’ll be back in the morning, tail between your legs.’

      Kyle bit back the answer that rushed to his lips. Better not. He did not want to leave on a sour note. ‘Bye then, Grandad.’

      The old man vanished into the darkness without replying. Kyle hesitated, almost afraid to leave now the moment had arrived. Even if he hadn’t landed the kind of chance most people would give their right arm for, who’d want to stay in a place like this? The farm had not turned a profit in years. Things were falling to bits around them. Only his grandfather’s stubborn refusal to give in kept them tied here. He looked back at the cottage. Another section of guttering had split since the last repair. Water was dribbling down the walls, staining the stone. The roof was missing a couple of tiles. Behind him, the barn door banged like a warning. He picked up his guitar and left.

      It was raining when he reached the village. 11.30. Half an hour to wait for the bus. Across the green, he saw Lauren open the door of the White Horse. How could he have forgotten it was her shift today? He legged it over the road.

      ‘What’ll it be?’ She threw the question over her shoulder as she put away clean glasses behind the bar. He watched a thick tress of chestnut hair fall forward over her eyes, imagined running his fingers through it.

      ‘A half of Tetley.’

      ‘A half?’ She turned round. Her arched eyebrows drew together. ‘Oh, it’s you. Thought you’d be gone by now.’ She put his drink on the bar between them.

      ‘Bus comes in half an hour,’ he said, handing over the money.

      ‘Bus? Not getting a lift?’

      He snorted. ‘You seen my chauffeur?’

      ‘You needn’t laugh,’ she said. ‘If you win, you’ll spend your days riding around in a stretch limo, knocking back the champagne...’

      ‘Yeah, right.’

       She looked put out. ‘Come on, you must be a bit excited? You’ve reached the finals of The Star Factory. How many get to do that?’

      ‘I’m nervous.’ Terrified, more like.

      She rolled her eyes. ‘You? Nervous? After all the gigs you’ve played here?’

      He was silent. He didn’t want to talk about it. His mind was on the journey, getting to the theatre, tuning up.

      Her voice pushed into his thoughts. ‘Imagine it’s Saturday night and you’re trying to make yourself heard over Big Al or Tony. That should do the trick.’ She bent to put away the last of the glasses. Then she added something so quiet and unexpected he almost missed it. ‘I’d vote for you.’

      To cover his confusion he took a hasty swig of beer. It went down the wrong way. By the time he’d finished spluttering, Lauren was at the far end of the bar, joking with the regulars coming through the door.

      ‘Be seeing you,’ he muttered. No one answered.

      The bus deposited him in the centre of Stroud. A quick jog down the High Street, then the warm cocoon of the National Express all the way to London. The coach was half-empty. He sprawled over two seats, his head propped against the window as the motorway flashed past, bringing the future closer and closer, mile after mile.




‘And last, but by no means least, Ladies and Gentlemen, here’s our final finalist,  21-year-old Kyle Waterman, all the way from Stroud in Gloucestershire. Just last month this gifted young singer songwriter held the audience spellbound as he swept his way to victory in the west of England heat. Can he do it again? Will he be this year’s Star Factory champion? There’s only one way to find out. Take it away, KYLE…!’

      The clapping faded into silence. Alone on stage, Kyle clutched his guitar. The studio lights blazed. A trickle of sweat ran down his cheek.     

      You’ll be back in the morning, tail between your legs.

      He’d sooner die.

      Kyle bent over the guitar. But his fingers were frozen. He felt the flush of failure rise up his face. After everything he’d been through, he was going to chuck it all away.

      I’d vote for you.

      Right at the last moment, his fingertips swerved away from the chords that began Are you ready, his signature song, the one that had the judges jumping at the heats. Not that one. Give them something real. The song he’d written for her, the one he’d never dared play to an audience.

      The auditorium was a tense bowl of expectation. Kyle took a deep breath and she was there in his head, pulling pints and clearing glasses, that sexy hair falling over her face, gamely laughing along with the regulars, sweeping the same dirty floors, staring out into the middle distance when she thought no one was looking. His fingers picked out the opening melody, then he opened his mouth and let his heart do the rest.



‘Wakey, wakey, rise and shine!’

      Light splashed into the room with sudden intensity. Kyle groaned and pulled the duvet over his head. Someone tugged it away, leaving him naked and squirming.

            ‘Wha..a?’ He pushed himself up on one elbow and glanced at the bedside table. He hadn’t dreamt it. There was the golden statue that proved he’d won.

      ‘Up you get, Kyle.’ A short, thickset man stood at the end of the bed. His tone was brusque. It didn’t seem like saying no was an option.

      Kyle sat up slowly. He had the mother of all hangovers. Memories flashed through his brain like fireworks: the audience on their feet, cheering; the soaring sensation of absolute joy when the judges called his name; the presentation of the statue, smiles for the camera, the back stage party…all those drinks…

     ‘You’re the one they call Mr Music.’ He recognised him now. Slicked back hair, greying at the temples, sunglasses hiding his eyes, a bone-crushing handshake. The introduction had come just before the party started.

     ‘At last he remembers,’ the stout man said. There was something unusual about his accent. Not exactly American, but not any recognisable British accent either. ‘John Smith’s the name. I’m your new manager. All part of the deal. Congratulations, and all the rest. Glad you enjoyed yourself, but the party’s over. The work starts now, so you better get that sorry ass of yours into the shower and then I’ll tell you what you’ll be doing the rest of the day.’

      A stretch limo was waiting outside the hotel. John held the door open with an ironic grin and Kyle climbed in. He gazed out through the tinted windows as they glided through the city streets. His companion did not lift his eyes from his phone until the car came to a halt in front of a gleaming new building.

      They swept through the vast entrance hall, shining with marble and glass, and took the lift to the top floor. A door opened and Kyle found himself in a room full of people working at laptops or talking into mobiles.

      John clapped his hands and everyone turned to stare at Kyle. ‘Your new team,’ he told him. ‘These are the guys who are going to make you a global star.’ There was a polite smattering of applause, then they all turned back to their work.

      John led Kyle into a smaller office. Empty except for a long polished table and chairs, it held a stunning view over the whole city. ‘Not bad, huh?’ he said, watching Kyle go to the window. ‘This is just the beginning. You play your cards right, and this could be your life from now on.’

      Kyle took a seat at the enormous table. ‘I don’t get it…who are those people? Why do I need a team?’ he said. ‘I write my own music, and when I sing, it’s just me and my guitar. I don’t…’

      ‘You don’t need anyone else, is that it?’ John interrupted. His face had lost its brief moment of friendliness. ‘Listen, buddy. You don’t know jackshit about this industry. My job is to make you a star, that’s what I do, and I’m the best in the business, so if I were you, I’d give my mouth a rest and listen up.’

      For the next three hours, Kyle listened while John talked about concepts, design, costume, venues, marketing, budgets. Not a word about music. Kyle excused himself to go to the Gents just to get a moment to think. The memory of last night came back, an explosion of colour and wonder. It had felt like the best day of his life, but this morning had pitchforked him into some grey corporate world that was taking him further and further away from his dreams. Was that what success meant?

      ‘Don’t I need to look at a contract?’ he asked when he got back to the office.

      John looked surprised. ‘I can get the lawyers round tomorrow if you want. All pretty straightforward, nothing to worry about.’

      ‘And when are we going to talk about the music?’

      ‘Like to call the shots, don’t you? OK, since you ask, this is the plan. Going forward, you’re going to need a bigger sound.’

      ‘What do you mean?’

      ‘A guy with a guitar is all very well for a live audience, but if you want staying power, you’ll need proper backing. And the acoustic guitar will have to go. Too old school. Don’t worry, I’m on it. We’re booked into the studio tomorrow with one of my favourite bands and I’ve found you some great writers to work with.’

      ‘But I write my own…’

      ‘Used to write. Don’t get me wrong, buddy, your songs were great for the contest, but to crack the American market you’ll need a different sound altogether. These guys are the best.’

      ‘And what if I say no?’

      ‘You what?’ The accent had slipped. John was staring at him with undisguised hostility. ‘Let me get this straight. You’re talking to the number one in the business and you’re thinking of throwing my advice back in my face? You young kids, you’re all the same. You come from nowhere and think you know it all.’ He looked at his watch. ‘You know what? I’m going to take a rain check, and when I get back you’d better be ready to work or you can kiss goodbye to fame and fortune.’

      Kyle waited until John had left the room, then he got up and went to the window. Right now he had the world at his feet. Did he really want to give it all up and go back to the farm, just because Smith was such an arsehole?

      If it wasn’t Smith, it would be someone else. Staying here, letting the team next door mold him and change him, that would be giving up. He could see it now. They’d screw him over with the contract. He’d be giving away the best of himself, selling out for what the suits called success.

      I’d vote for you.

      Lauren. She was his inspiration, not this shit. Did he really only have two choices, stay here or go back to the farm?

      The door opened. ‘Right, let’s get this show on the road.’ John was back.

      ‘I don’t think so. It’s been interesting, but I can’t stay.’ Kyle pushed his way past.

      ‘Where are you going? What the fuck do you think you’re playing at? Come back here!’ John’s impotent rage followed him to the lift. ‘You’ll regret this. You’ll never play another gig. No one makes a fool out of Mr Music…’

      Kyle’s heart was light as he boarded the National Express. He flicked through a newspaper someone had left behind, smiling at the pictures of himself holding up the golden statue. What a night. He’d never forget it. But there was a more important one to come. He picked up his phone and began to text. Does the White Horse have space for a special gig tonight? Hoping you’ll still vote for me. Kyle X


About the author 

A former teacher living in the south of England, Alison Allen writes novels and poetry as well as short fiction. Her stories have been featured by Writers’ Retreat, CaféLit and Shortkidstories and she has won prizes for her poetry.



































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